Sikh History – The Origin and Beliefs of Sikhs

Sikh History – The Origin and Beliefs of Sikhs

Guru Hargobind handwritten Mool Mantra
Hand writing of Guru Hargobind – Mool Mantra or the first para of Japji


We started off the podcast series with an Introductory Episode that gave an overview of the Sikh faith and mostly talked about the first 200 years – from the time Guru Nanak founded the Sikh religion to Guru Gobind’s founding of the Khalsa panth – in the first 100 years the 5 Gurus pronounced the ideals of a new social order in the Punjab. The Sikh teachings were accessible to all humanity – and its symbol was the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar – a place of worship whose foundation was laid by a Muslim. Under the next 5 gurus, the second period of 100 years saw the development of traditions that supplemented this new social order. Sikh values emphasized that the mission of Sikhi was to creating a free, just and equal society.

In this episode of the Sikh History podcast, and with this background in mind, lets delve deeper into the question of the Sikh identity – Who are the Sikhs? And more importantly what do Sikhs believe in? In this episode, we will try to answer these questions from the teachings of Guru Nanak.

The word Sikh owes its origin to the language Pali – one of the languages of the common people in 15th century India, and is directly derived from the word Sikkha – In very simple terms it means “a disciple” –– a disciple of the Guru and more specifically, a disciple of Guru Nanak.

It is no secret that Guru Nanak had become disenchanted with the inequality and injustice he witnessed in the society. In about 1499, he took it upon himself to create a new social order and started to compose sermons of unity of all humanity. Living in Sultanpur, he was joined by Mardana – a Muslim musician who played the rabab or the Lute – who set Guru Nanak’s verses to music and every night they sang the hymns together – they also fed anyone who came to hear the sermons. Sometimes they would also be accompanied by Bala, a hindu peasant – and the three of them then went preaching from village to village. This captured the imagination of the people of Punjab. A large number of people would gather at these sermons and subsequently became disciples of Guru Nanak. Within a few years these disciples became a homogenous group whose faith was exclusively the teachings of Guru Nanak – and this was the origin of the Sikhs.

These disciples of Guru Nanak dissented from both the prevailing religions of Hinduism and Islam. They came to the Guru not only to lead a life of equality – void of any caste structures and restrictions – but also a life based on a simple work ethic – kirt karo or earn an honest living, vand chako – or share with fellow humanity and naam japo or remember God in all actions. Thus the righteous path that a Sikh must follow is the path of social interdependence and one that is based on a strict equality, between all men and women, rich and poor, irrespective of any artificially created human barriers.

In the modern context, a Sikh is a disciple of the Guru Granth Sahib, which incorporates the teachings of all the 10 Sikh Gurus.

Guru Nanak’s crusade was primarily directed against two evils in the society:

The first was the fanaticism and the intolerance which had become the hallmark of the Muslim rulers; and the second was against the meaningless rituals and constant discrimination amongst people – particularly against women – which was an integral part of the Hindu way of life. It was a crusade without anger, without any violence or without any recrimination – Guru Nanak was a man of gentle ways and his life stories recorded as janam sakhis show that he was extremely observant of the mannerisms of society and possessed a pleasant sense of humor.

Guru Nanak preached strict monotheism – the belief in Ek Onkar and traveled far and wide to different parts of India and abroad. His 4 extensive voyages took him in all directions – to Assam 1500 miles to the east of Punjab, to Sri Lanka about 2500 miles south of Punjab,  and also to modern day Iraq and Tibet – where he is still revered in modern times – Everywhere, he preached his message of communal harmony and universal brotherhood and gained more followers. We will talk about each of these journeys in more detail in later episodes.

Guru Nanak left a following of disciples or Sikhs and his nine successors molded the small following into a community with its own language, literature, culture, religious beliefs, institutions, traditions and conventions  – and we will delve into the role of each Guru and the evolution of the Sikh way of life, the creation of the Khalsa panth etc. as we progress further and increase our understanding of Sikh history in this series of podcasts.

So, having learned about the origin of the Sikh faith, let us answer our second question of this episode – what do Sikhs believe in? In this episode we will focus on the Sikh beliefs as laid down by Guru Nanak and subsequently we will dedicate more episodes on how some other beliefs came to be integral part of the Sikh identity today.

The first concept laid out by Guru Nanak is of One God – and God in the Sikh lexicon is defined as someone or something that is beyond time and beyond the circle of birth, death or reincarnation. God is immortal, omnipresent, omniscient – yet the power that is God cannot be defined because it is formless. All of the abilities to define God are actually an admission of an inability to define Him.  In the very basic and abstract sense, God is the truth. This is very clearly stated in the opening lines of the morning prayer JapJi composed by Guru Nanak and also is the opening verse in the Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Nanak emphasized that truth surpasses everything else and the only thing that surpasses  truth is truthful conduct – Guru Nanak showed his disciples, his Sikhs, a way of leading a truthful life.

Secondly, Guru Nanak did not believe in renouncing the world to attain enlightenment and to get to know God. He clearly rejected the ascetic way of life.  He preached that a man’s existence in this world is like that of a guest in a household – the guest must live in it without being of it. One need not renounce the world, yet one may not be attached to it either. An ideal way of life for Sikhs is to therefore dedicate themselves to the service of mankind to achieve self enlightenment. Sikhs are a community that congregates together,  learns from each other, labors for a livelihood and gives part of their earnings to uplift the society.

A third cornerstone of the Sikh faith is the concept of Seva – a selfless as well as a self-giving service, for building a good, egoless character. Self improvement through the service of others is thus marked out as one of the moral goods in life. Accordingly, the Sikh moral tradition stipulates that a Sikh must dwell in humility, cherish his humble dispositions and in his daily existence do good even in the face of evil – A Sikh’s actions should be similar to that of a tree that drops fruits even to the one who throws stones at it.

These thoughts may not sound as radical as they actually were. Therefore these virtues need to be understood in the context of the highly hierarchical and master-slave relationship practiced by the Muslim rulers on one hand and the norm of social differentiation practiced by the Hindu society on the other. Both of these oppressive structures deprived citizens of the basic human rights of freedom and equality. Guru Nanak rejected this malaise and built the Sikh moral superstructure on the foundation of equality.  He said “If a powerful person were to attack another powerful person, there would be no ground for grievance or anger. But if a ferocious lion were to fall upon a herd of cattle, its master must exert to protect it”. Hence, we see that the moral imperative to fight a just war in order to uphold the rights to freedom, equality and justice – the three most important virtues in Sikh philosophy – were clearly lodged in the moral scheme of Guru Nanak himself.

It is these very teachings of Guru Nanak that endeared him to the people of Punjab and brought him a large following of disciples or Sikhs. Guru Nanak spent the last years of his life with his family working as a farmer in Kartarpur, now in west Punjab in Pakistan. In Kartarpur, he raised his first Dharamsal or Abode of Faith – the Dharamsal later became the Gurudwara or the gateway of the Guru. People flocked to hear him sing his hymns and preach the unity of all humanity.

This congregation and disciples of Guru Nanak came to be known as the Sikhs and the morals and ethics that this community espoused, collectively came to form the Sikh beliefs, thoughts and actions.

This was a brief introduction to the twin questions of the origin of the Sikhs and their beliefs. We will continue to provide more information regarding these questions and much much more as we unravel the treasures of the Sikh History. Keep Listening. Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.